Supreme Court

Supreme Court Seems Likely to Throw Out Global Warming Case

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in a high-profile global-warming case: American Electric Power v. Connecticut. At issue is whether and how courts can hold corporate polluters accountable for the planetary climate damage they are causing.

Several states have sued power producers on the basis that they are creating a public nuisance. Instead of being tied to a specific federal statute or regulation, their claim is based on the common law of nuisance, which has been part of our legal system for centuries. (Common law is law developed over time by the courts in the absence of specific legislation or executive rules.) The Second Circuit ruled that the lawsuit could proceed on this theory, and the power companies appealed. However, as the Wall Street Journals reports:

The Supreme Court appeared deeply skeptical Tuesday about allowing states to sue electric utilities to force cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Both conservative and liberal justices questioned whether a federal judge could deal with the complex issue of global warming, a topic they suggested is better left to Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency.

An additional factor arising since the lawsuit began several years ago is a change in the EPA’s stance. When the lawsuit began, the EPA claimed it lacked the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Now, having been corrected by the Supreme Court, the agency is deciding whether to adopt rules affecting facilities like the ones at issue in this case. Such regulations would, if adopted, trump the common law.

Why let the lawsuit go forward, when "the agency is engaged in it right now?" said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The lawyer representing the states acknowledged that the case was before the high court at a "peculiar moment," but said the court should block the lawsuit only if the EPA actually issues regulations. ...

Lawyers for the companies and the administration focused on the enormity of the climate change issue to argue against the lawsuit.

"You have never heard a case like this before," Neal Katyal, the acting U.S. Solicitor General, said. The term global warming, Katyal said, "tells you all you need to know."

The Justices seem likely to rule that the legislative and executive branches should address the issues raised in this case. That will serve the interests of giant corporations with a financial stake in the status quo, who, due to Citizens United, have an undue and growing influence over who populates those branches.

PFAW

The Story From Wisconsin: Big Defeat For Walker

A lot of people are feeling pretty good in Wisconsin right now, but Governor Scott Walker probably isn’t one of them.

Last night, his hand-picked successor to become Milwaukee County Executive (the office Walker left when he became governor) was crushed by a 22 point margin. And this morning Joanne Kloppenburg declared victory over State Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, a conservative activist who tied himself to Walker’s agenda.

While Wisconsin judicial elections are officially nonpartisan, Prosser is well known as a Republican who was quickly associated with Scott Walker. People in the state then began to realize that electing Joanne Kloppenburg to the bench to replace Justice Prosser would shift the 4-3 conservative majority to a 4-3 liberal leaning court, thereby affecting how the highest court in the state might rule when Walker’s law inevitably arrives at their doorstep for review.

In no time flat, the election took on huge significance as the contest turned into a referendum wherein voters could express their favor or displeasure with Walker’s anti-collective bargaining legislation while affecting the ideological bend of the court that will likely be the final word on the legality of Walker’s law.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Kloppenburg scored a 204 vote victory. Close? You bet, but that’s cold comfort for Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP who might be feeling a twinge of regret for pushing their extreme anti-worker agenda.

One would think that other Republicans would learn some lessons from this defeat and tap down their extremism a bit. In Washington, at least, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

PFAW

Pro-Corporate Groups Spend Millions To Save Walker’s Preferred Justice In Wisconsin

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was supposed to win reelection in a walk, after winning a February primary with 55% of the vote. Prosser, a former Republican state assemblyman, faced JoAnne Kloppenburg, who previously served as the state’s assistant attorney general and came in second in the primary. But Governor Scott Walker’s brazen push to bust unions and implement an ultraconservative political agenda spurred the progressive community into action, and Walker’s popularity plummeted.

Many of the Wisconsinites who are outraged over the right-wing policies pursued by Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature, rallied to Kloppenburg’s side. Walker allies feared the potential defeat of Prosser, who called himself “a common sense complement to both the new [Walker] administration and Legislature.”

While there are just a few hundred votes separating the two candidates, guaranteeing a recount, last-minute spending by right-wing organizations helped salvage Prosser’s flagging campaign.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice of New York University, which monitors spending in judicial elections, pro-corporate groups have greatly outspent progressive organizations. The Brennan Center found that spending in the race passed the $3.5 million mark, with most of the spending benefiting Prosser.

While the Greater Wisconsin Committee ran ads against Prosser’s reelection, pro-corporate organizations such as the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (an amalgamate of the Wisconsin State Chamber of Commerce and the Wisconsin Manufacturers Association), the Club for Growth, Citizens for a Strong America, and the Tea Party Express have flooded the state with ads supporting Prosser and berating Kloppenburg.

As of Monday, the four groups which backed Prosser spent a combined $2,177,220, but the Greater Wisconsin Committee spent $1,363,040. The final spending figures have not yet been tallied.

Citizens for a Strong America, a front group for the Koch Brothers-financed Americans for Prosperity, ran an ad so erroneous that the nonpartisan group PolitiFact gave it a “pants on fire” rating. Even the far-right Family Research Council added to the smear campaign, attacking Kloppenburg, who worked as assistant attorney general since 1989, as inexperienced in advertisements on thirty-four Wisconsin radio stations.

With a recount pending, Kloppenburg’s come-from-behind campaign shows the ability of progressives in states like Wisconsin to overcome the corporate juggernaut that is able to spend almost limitless amounts of money to support its favored candidates.

PFAW

Roberts Court Leaves State’s Church/State Money Laundering Scheme Intact

A closely divided Supreme Court issued a seriously flawed decision today in Arizona Christian Tuition v. Winn, using constitutional sleight of hand to get around the Establishment Clause's prohibition against the use of public funds for religious purposes and to frustrate Americans' ability to go to court when the constitutional guarantee of church-state separation is violated.

Here's the background to the case, which involves the state of Arizona's program to support religious schools.

States are constitutionally prohibited from directly supporting religious education. So Arizona figured out a way to try to get around that inconvenient First Amendment by setting up a system where that money goes to the religious organization before it gets to the treasury.

Arizona has a program where taxpayers get dollar-for-dollar tax credits for money they give to "school tuition organizations" (STOs), nonprofit organizations that award private school scholarships to children. Many of the STO awards actually require parents to send their children to religious schools as a condition of receipt.

So an Arizonan can take a certain amount of money that he owes in taxes and instead give it to a religious STO to pay for someone's religious education. As Justice Kagan said during oral arguments, Arizona established the program so STOs, acting as state intermediaries, could "make distinctions that the state itself cannot make."

Essentially, the state has set up a money laundering scheme to get around the Establishment Clause.

However, before the Court could address the program's constitutionality, it first had to determine if the taxpayer plaintiffs have standing to sue. The Constitution prohibits federal courts from hearing a case unless the plaintiff has a personal stake in the outcome. Simply being a taxpayer generally does not give you such a personal stake. However, in the Flast v. Cohen decision of 1968, the Supreme Court recognized that federal taxpayers do have such a stake when they challenge Congressional spending.

The Roberts Court today ignored common sense and the reasoning of Flast and concluded that Arizona state taxpayers don't have standing to bring this case to federal court. As they did in the 2007 Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation case, the five conservatives acted to prevent courts from enforcing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

According to the Roberts Court, there is no government spending here to contest. Instead, it is simply a series of independent spending decisions made by private citizens who are spending their own money, not the government's.

This is constitutional sleight of hand at its worst, which Justice Kagan pointed out in dissent. As she noted, the majority is making an arbitrary distinction between cash grants and targeted tax breaks for the purposes of standing: Either way, the government has financed religious activity, so either way, taxpayers should be able to challenge the subsidy.

Since there are times when no one other than taxpayers has suffered the injury necessary to challenge government sponsorship of religion, the majority opinion "will diminish the Establishment Clause's force and meaning." The dissent continued:

"The Court opinion thus offers a roadmap – more truly, just a one-step instruction – to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge. Structure the funding as a tax expenditure, and Flast will not stand in the way. No taxpayer will have standing to object. However blatantly the government may violate the Establishment Clause, taxpayers cannot gain access to the federal courts."

It is a good day for the religious right, and a bad one for the United States Constitution and the rule of law.

PFAW

A Defense of Academic Freedom in Wisconsin

The University of Wisconsin has responded to the state GOP's request for the e-mails of Professor William Cronon relating to the clash over collective bargaining in that state. This was the opening salvo in a series of such requests to bully and intimidate university professors.

Talking Points Memo reports that the University has complied with the request, paying due respect to protecting academic freedom, among other values:

We are excluding records involving students because they are protected under [federal law]. We are excluding exchanges that fall outside the realm of the faculty member's job responsibilities and that could be considered personal pursuant to Wisconsin Supreme Court case law. We are also excluding what we consider to be the private email exchanges among scholars that fall within the orbit of academic freedom and all that is entailed by it. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.

Chancellor Biddy Martin also posted a message to the campus community to help ensure that academic freedom would not be chilled by the Republicans' assault:

Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.

When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.

To the extent that the GOP hoped to find evidence that Professor Cronon was using state computers to engage in partisan political activities, they're out of luck:

We have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon's records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none.

But this should not be the end of the story. As we have noted previously, this incident should not be viewed in isolation. If the party officials involved with this are not held accountable for their overreach, this incident will do long-term damage. Continuing party support for those who undermine the foundations of our free society significantly lowers the bar for what departures from the principles of democracy are now acceptable.

PFAW

The Right's Use of Records Requests to Chill Dissent and Attack Academics

In Wisconsin and Michigan, we are seeing what appears to be the latest right wing tool to intimidate and harass its critics: extensive – and baseless – public records requests against academics at public universities. The consequences for the free and open debate on which our democracy depends are serious indeed.

Last week, Wisconsin Republicans clamped down on criticisms of their party's efforts to undermine workers' rights by filing a broad demand for copies of all of the emails of University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor William Cronon that mention Governor Scott Walker, the eight Republican state senators who have been targeted for recall, or unions that represent government employees. Cronon had recently penned a blog post calling attention to the work of a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and its apparently significant influence on Republican state lawmakers, including those in Wisconsin such as Governor Walker. The message was clear. Criticize what we do and we'll come after you to see what we can dig up to smear you with.

Any thought that this might be an isolated response was quickly shattered when similar requests were made for Wisconsin-related e-mails at three Michigan universities. Rather than being from the Wisconsin GOP, these were from a right-wing organization called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. They filed requests for e-mails of the faculty of the University of Michigan Labor Studies Center, the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University, and the Labor Education Program of Michigan State University. The requests cover not only e-mails relating to the Wisconsin clash over the labor rights, but, according to press reports, also any e-mails mentioning Rachel Maddow.

Aside from their far right conservative ideologies, the Mackinac Center and ALEC have something else in common: Although not well known among the general public, they are part of a network of right wing ideological organizations that have been heavily funded over the years by many of the same small group of wealthy funders, including the billionaire Koch Brothers, the Coors family, the Scaife family, and corporate giant Exxon Mobil.

It is not likely a coincidence that these two right wing organizations employed the same unusual tactics in two different states just days apart. Who knows where they will go next. Clearly this is a pattern. And, unfortunately, it's a familiar one. Just as in the McCarthy era, academics face intimidation and harassment and possible threats to their reputations if they take public stands against the far right. The specific method of intimidation may be different (i.e., public records requests), but the goal is the same.

This intimidation is as insidious now as it was more than half a century ago, because it does not matter that the targets have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. As we have seen, all it took was one purloined e-mail, taken out of context and distorted beyond all recognition, to manufacture the phony "Climategate" scandal that threatened the reputation of climate scientists around the world and set back climate change regulations by years.

Anyone doubting that the far right is both willing and able to destroy their reputations with such distortions needs look no farther than the devastating video "exposés" of ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood. The ACORN video came first and essentially destroyed the organization. In the best traditions of McCarthyism, the right now uses any association with ACORN to discredit its opponents. They are hoping for equal success with NPR and Planned Parenthood.

People For the American Way strongly supports the Freedom of Information Act and its state and local equivalents. Opening government records to the public serves as an essential check on the abuse of government power. Indeed, the Bush Administration prepared for its long war against civil liberties in the administration's early days by essentially reversing the Clinton Administration's presumption that FOIA requests should generally be granted unless there is some reason to deny it.

Such laws exist to expand public dialogue and the dissemination of information affecting the public welfare. But the rights granted by FOIA laws, like so many others, have limitations and can be abused. A demand for information can be made not to hold government accountable and enhance public debate, but instead to harass, intimidate, suppress public debate, and keep information and opinions out of the public square. This is particularly true when it is aimed at individuals in state academic institutions.

That's what we see happening in Wisconsin and Michigan.

The public has a right to know about the activities of government entities working in its name. When a government entity has the authority to issue licenses, allocate funds, imprison people, conduct safety inspections, conduct elections – the core activities of government, all of which have substantial impacts on individuals, businesses, and groups – open records laws can help ensure that these tasks are done lawfully, without favoritism or waste. Reflecting how often members of the public request such information, many government organizations have entire offices dedicated to fulfilling these records requests.

So how often does a member of the public submit a record request for, say, the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan? I asked Roland Zullo, a research scientist there. He had to think about it because such requests are so rare, but he thinks the last one was about five years ago, a fishing expedition from a conservative organization essentially seeking all of their records going back to the 1950s. When the organization learned how much it would have to pay to cover the costs of its truly expansive request, it apparently backed off.

The Supreme Court has recognized the unique role that universities, including public universities, play in maintaining our liberties. As it stated in 1957, during the McCarthy era, "[t]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

That is why the American Historical Society has strongly condemned the efforts by Wisconsin Republicans to intimidate Professor Cronon:

The purpose of the state's Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation. It will discourage other historians (and scholars in other disciplines) employed by public institutions from speaking out as citizen-scholars in their blogs, op-ed pieces, articles, books, and other writings.

We should recognize that public universities are a unique hybrid. They are funded by the public, and we should be able to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent efficiently and legally. But their work also contributes to the robust debate over public issues without which our freedom will die. And that debate requires that we protect academic freedom and ensure that faculty have no reason to feel intimidated for asking difficult questions, conducting their research and writings, and making statements that those in power do not wish to hear.

That is the American Way.

PFAW

Women versus Wal-Mart at the Supreme Court Today

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Dukes v. Wal-Mart, a gender discrimination case brought by female workers of Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer. The workplace discrimination case is a complicated piece of litigation and has already been in the courts for a decade.

The women suing Wal-Mart won an important victory in 2004 when a district court ruled that they could pursue their case as a “class,” representing all similarly situated women working for Wal-Mart.

Class action cases are permitted under very limited circumstances but they serve as important vehicles for groups of plaintiffs who may not have the means or resources to individually take on a deep-pocketed defendant in court. Because without a class action case, most of the plaintiffs wouldn’t be willing to go through the difficult process of filing a suit, class actions mean that corporations are forced to deal with cases they could otherwise ignore. In addition, class actions raise the possibility that a company will have to pay an enormous monetary award and even punitive damages—a powerful incentive to settle out of court.

So it’s no surprise that Wal-Mart appealed the district court’s decision to let this case proceed. The company’s appeal resulted in two split decisions by three-judge panels and a later 6-5 decision from the full 9th Circuit which, among other things, ultimately upheld the district court’s decision as to certification of the class. Wal-Mart appealed to the Supreme Court.

Wal-Mart is arguing that the women suing shouldn’t be designated a class for a number of reasons. The company claims that that the representative plaintiffs do not have claims typical of the whole class—a group which could involve from 500,000 to 1.5 million women with varying jobs and circumstances. Wal-Mart also argued that allowing the district court’s decision to stand would make the trial so unmanageable that it would violate Wal-Mart’s federal and constitutional rights.

The women pushing the suit point to company-wide practices that they claimed resulted in a culture of gender discrimination, including sexist nicknames, managers who held meetings at Hooters restaurants, and other disparaging conduct directed at women. They also point out that only a class action approach would work against a giant corporation like Wal-Mart. Individual claims of $1,100 per worker would do nothing towards ending the company’s discriminatory practices.

PFAW Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of the female class along with 33 other civil rights organizations, including the ACLU and the National Women’s Law Center. The brief emphasizes that sex discrimination in the workplace remains a very serious problem in the United States and the systemic barriers to individual actions reinforce the need for a class action to address the kind of discrimination alleged in the case against Wal-Mart. Not surprisingly, corporate America and its many powerful trade associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, came out in full force in support of Wal-Mart, filing amicus briefs to protect their corporate interests.

While the outcome of the case remains unclear, it can be certain that there remains a pro-corporate bloc of the Court that will be sympathetic to Wal-Mart’s claims. Justice Scalia tipped his hand at his skeptical view of class actions last year in another case, suggesting that there was “national concern over abuse of the class action device.” The Court is also considering a case this term that would weaken the ability to bring class action lawsuits in the context of state consumer protection laws.

We’ll keep you posted as the case moves forward.

 

PFAW

Jon Stewart Slams Republican Hypocrisy on Corporate Power

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart took Republicans to task for baselessly holding “parasitic” workers and “greedy” labor unions for the country’s economic and budget problems, while staying silent when many of the country’s largest corporations “pay no federal taxes” at all as a result of off-shore schemes and corporate tax breaks and loopholes.

Stewart also points out that the Supreme Court in Citizens United granted corporations the same political rights as people, defenders of corporations are fine when business giants like General Electric pay no taxes at all while cutting American jobs. “I know the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people, but what I didn’t realize is that those people are assholes.”

People For the American Way has launched a petition telling members of Congress that “cuts to social security and vital programs that help students, poor children and the unemployed should not be part of the deficit discussion before tax fairness and making corporations pay their fair share.” You can also join our Facebook page, “I pay more taxes than G.E.”

PFAW

The Further Marginalization of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

For the second time in less than a month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has learned that its extremism can sometimes be too much for even one member of the notoriously pro-corporate Roberts Court to swallow.

Yesterday, a unanimous Supreme Court released its opinion in Matrixx Initiatives v. Siracusano. At issue was whether a publicly traded company can be held accountable when it withholds from investors the fact that its main product has been linked to significant, negative health consequences, but not so often as to be statistically significant. (The Chamber submitted an amicus brief supporting the company.)

Matrixx is a pharmaceutical company that makes a product called Zicam Cold Remedy. It submitted a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission that omitted certain negative information about Zicam. Matrixx had been told independently by three medical researchers and physicians that some users of Zicam had lost their sense of smell. The company was also being sued by two people claiming to have lost their sense of smell due to Zicam. Matrixx's SEC filing did not mention any of these facts.

When the facts about Zicam became known, a pension fund initiated a class-action suit against Matrixx on behalf of investors.

Federal securities laws prohibit companies from making "material" omissions - omissions that an average shareholder would consider important - in connection with the buying and selling of shares. In 2004, when Good Morning America aired a story about a possible link between Zicam and the loss of the sense of smell, the company's share price dropped by 23.8% in just one day, suggesting that this just might have possibly been material information for investors.

Nevertheless, the district court dismissed the case because the number of reports was not statistically significant. The Ninth Circuit reversed that decision and, in a refreshing display of common sense, has now been upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court in an opinion written by Justice Sotomayor: Just because the number of negative incidents isn't statistically significant doesn't mean you automatically can hide it from investors.

Congress enacted the securities laws during the New Deal, in response to widespread abuses in the securities industry - a scenario all too familiar to Americans today. The intent was to replace a system of caveat emptor with an honest market. Congressional intent was clear: If the average shareholder would consider something important, then it must be disclosed.

Big Business was paying attention to this case: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief urging the Court to rule for Matrixx - which would have made it harder to hold publicly traded corporations accountable when they choose to omit important information affecting Americans' investments. The Chamber was hoping the conservative Justices would once again throw common sense and legal precedent out the window in order to achieve a corporate-friendly result.

But this time, the Chamber's extremism was too much for even one Justice on the Supreme Court to swallow.

PFAW

Will the Supreme Court Close the Door to Civil Rights Lawsuits?

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing hear oral arguments in Fox v. Vice, a case that threatens to choke off future civil rights litigation. People For the American Way Foundation has joined an amicus brief protecting the right of people to sue to protect their basic rights.

In a federal civil rights lawsuit, where the government or a government official is being sued, a trial court can sometimes order the plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal fees. The law allows this if (1) the defendant is the prevailing party and (2) the plaintiff's case was frivolous. In Fox v. Vice, the Supreme Court is being asked to interpret this law. The potential exposure to paying a defendant's legal fees serves as an obvious deterrent to bringing suit, and it's important, therefore that it be narrowly construed in order not to violate Congress's intent to empower people to vindicate their rights in the courts.

In this case, Ricky Fox sued the local chief of police, Billy Ray Vice, based on two incidents that took place after both men had announced their competing candidacies for the police chief job. Fox claimed that Vice, the incumbent, sent him an "anonymous" letter attempting to blackmail him into not running for office. The next month, Vice allegedly encouraged someone to file a false police report about Fox.

Fox claimed that these acts violated both federal civil rights laws and state tort laws. The case was before a federal court, and Fox eventually acknowledged that he had no valid federal claim. So the trial court judge dismissed the federal claims and remanded the state civil claims to state court for future adjudication. The judge also ruled that the federal claims had been frivolous, and he ordered the plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal fees related to the frivolous claims.

However, because the frivolous and non-frivolous claims were all based on the same set of facts, it was nearly impossible to disentangle legal fees for one from legal fees for the other. So the district court judge classified them all as being for the frivolous federal claims and ordered the plaintiff to pay the entire legal bill. Fox ended up paying the legal fees that will be used by the defendant to oppose Fox's own non-frivolous state court claims still to be litigated. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

If the Supreme Court affirms this decision, it could severely chill civil rights lawsuits. It sets up a standard where plaintiffs risk having to pay all of the defendant's legal fees even if only one of their claims is judged frivolous. To make matters worse, it is very hard to predict what a judge will consider frivolous. Even judges hearing the same case at the same time may differ wildly as to whether it is frivolous. The standard adopted by the lower court would discourage civil rights plaintiffs from pursuing novel legal theories and create a powerful disincentive against filing valid civil rights suits in the first place.

In considering the case, the Supreme Court should be consistent with Congress's intent to encourage meritorious suits and discourage frivolous ones. It should rule that legal fees should not be awarded in federal civil rights cases when a plaintiff's "frivolous" claim is factually intertwined with non-frivolous claims.

The Roberts Court has devised numerous ways to close the courthouse door to innocent people seeking to vindicate their rights. By the end of the Court's term, we will learn whether Fox v. Vice will join cases like Ledbetter v. Goodyear in the Roberts Court's Hall of Shame.

PFAW

A Religious Exemption From the Rule of Law

As originally written and introduced, the marriage bill that recently failed to pass in Maryland was very straightforward, simply removing the restriction that limits marriage to opposite-sex couples. Other laws in the state would have remained unchanged. However, a number of equality opponents expressed concern that some people would have to recognize the civil marriages of same-sex couples in violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs. Therefore, they introduced a variety of "conscience clause" amendments.

These amendments tell us a great deal about their supporters' real agenda, and it has nothing to do with a principled stand for religious liberty. The amendments did things like provide:

  • that a public school teacher not be required to teach materials that promote same-sex marriage if the content of the materials violates their sincerely held religious beliefs.
  • that a religious entity (or any nonprofit organization operated or controlled by one) need not provide adoption, foster care, or social services if providing the services would violate the entity's religious beliefs.
  • that a government employee (like a clerk or judge) not be required to perform a civil marriage ceremony if performance of the ceremony would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

The common phrasing – violating someone's religious beliefs, as opposed to violating their First Amendment rights – is extremely important. It makes it sound like people's constitutional Free Exercise rights are being protected. But in Maryland and elsewhere, that is not the case: Provisions like these do not codify existing First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion.

Neutral laws of general applicability that infringe on a person's religious beliefs have been upheld as not violating a person's First Amendment rights. For instance, in the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith case, the Supreme Court upheld Oregon's right to deny unemployment benefits to a person who had been fired for violating the state's anti-drugs laws (specifically, smoking peyote), even though the person smoked peyote as part of his religion.

In that case, with Justice Scalia writing for the majority, the Court ruled that the First Amendment does not allow a person to cite their own religious beliefs as a reason not to obey generally applicable laws. "To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself."

Anti-discrimination laws have long required people to do things that may not be consistent with their religious faith. For instance, an election worker who believes God commanded the sexes to remain separate in public cannot force men and women to vote in different rooms. A white innkeeper who believes that God commands segregation must nevertheless open his inn to all races. An employer who believes God commanded women to defer to men cannot refuse to make women supervisors.

So opponents of marriage equality certainly aren't acting to protect anyone's constitutional right to religious liberty. What they are demanding is a religious exemption from laws they don't like.

As if that wasn't bad enough, it's only those who share their particular religious beliefs who they deem worthy of this special right.

Since the marriage equality bill in Maryland failed to pass, have these self-styled stalwarts of religious liberty insisted that the amendments they proposed be made into law anyway, as general religious liberty protections not targeting gay people as a class?

They have not.

Perhaps what drives them is animus toward gays and lesbians. Or perhaps it's an arrogant certainty that their religious beliefs and no one else's should be protected by law.

Whatever it is, it certainly is not a principled fidelity to religious liberty.

We faced a similar issue more than forty years ago, when people with religious opposition to interracial marriages found themselves in a society that no longer prohibited such marriages. Indeed, as the Virginia trial court judge wrote when convicting Richard and Mildred Loving of violating the state's prohibition of interracial marriage:

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

After Loving v. Virginia, our nation did not empower that judge or any other public official to opt out of performing his duty to marry eligible couples simply because he personally opposed interracial marriages on religious grounds. Nor did we empower public school teachers to "opt out" of teaching students that such couples exist. No different standard should be applied with respect to gay couples.

PFAW

Arizona Senate Defeats Extremist Anti-Immigrant Laws

Arizona’s state Senate yesterday defeated five extreme anti-immigrant bills, including two aimed at provoking the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the constitutional definition of citizenship, and three more that would have required hospitals, schools, public housing administrators, and DMV officials to become immigration enforcers:

One of the rejected bills would have required hospitals to contact federal immigration officials or local law enforcement if people being treated lack insurance and can't demonstrate legal status.

Critics said that would burden hospitals, but Republican Sen. Steve Smith of Maricopa said his bill didn't require much.

"Maybe you forgot it's illegal to be in this country illegally," he said during the vote on his bill. "We just ask them to report the crime, not be the judge and executioner."

Also defeated was a bill to require schools to file reports on enrollments of illegal immigrant students.

The fifth bill was a sweeping measure sponsored by Pearce. It would have made it a crime for illegal immigrants to drive in Arizona. It also had provisions on registering vehicles, workplace hiring and various public benefits.

It would ban illegal immigrants from attending Arizona's public universities and community colleges. The state does not now have a ban but it does require illegal immigrants to pay higher, non-resident tuition rates.

Pearce's bill also would have required eviction of public housing tenants who let illegal immigrants live with them and make applicants for vehicle titles and registration prove they are in the country legally.

Arizona has in recent months led the way in extremist anti-immigrant measures, including passing last year’s SB 1070, which would have required racial profiling by state police. Parts of that bill were temporarily blocked by a judge as the bill is appealed.


That these five bills couldn’t make it through the Arizona Senate shows the power of the backlash against such harsh—and possibly illegal—measures.
 

PFAW

Encouraged by Citizens United, Right-Wing Groups Demand Even More Corporate Influence in Politics

While the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United overturned decades of precedent by granting corporations the right to spend money from their corporate treasuries to help elect or defeat candidates, many pro-corporate activists believe that the ruling didn’t go far enough and seek to eviscerate even more restrictions on corporate money in elections. Opponents of campaign finance reform are spearheading efforts to allow corporations to contribute directly to candidates for office, permit political groups to keep the identity of their donors a secret, and loosen restrictions on foreigners contributing to candidates. The Supreme Court is also set to consider a major case on the constitutionality of Arizona’s clean elections laws that provide public financing for qualifying candidates. Politico reports on the Right’s “sustained assault” on campaign laws:

Not satisfied by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to corporate-sponsored election ads, conservative opponents of campaign finance regulations have opened up a series of new legal fronts in their effort to eliminate the remaining laws restricting the flow of money into politics.

They have taken to Congress, state legislatures and the lower courts to target almost every type of regulation on the books: disclosure requirements, bans on foreign and corporate contributions and – in a pair of cases the Supreme Court will consider this month – party spending limits and public financing of campaigns.

The sustained assault, combined with the Supreme Court’s rightward tilt on the issue, has some advocates for reducing the role of money in politics fretting about the possibility of an irreversible shift in the way campaigns are regulated and funded that would favor Republicans and corporate interests in the 2012 presidential race and beyond.



“Depending on its scope, an adverse ruling from the high court could undermine public financing systems across the country and increase still further the grossly disproportionate voice given to corporations and unions in our elections,” warns a memo by Gerry Hebert and Tara Malloy, lawyers at the pro-regulation Campaign Legal Center, which filed a brief defending the Arizona law.

“Just a year after the controversial decision in Citizens United v. FEC, the Court is once again poised to issue a ruling that could make it harder for ordinary citizens to compete with big money in our democracy,” their memo predicted.

Opponents of campaign rules argue that removing restrictions allows more voices to compete in the political marketplace. And they have a slew of other suits pending that could dramatically alter the political money landscape, including one challenging a rule that limited how much the Republican National Committee could spend supporting the unsuccessful 2010 reelection campaign of former Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.).

The Supreme Court is set to decide on Friday whether to hear the case which is being handled by Jim Bopp, a Republican lawyer and leading opponent of campaign restrictions. The impact of the Cao case “could be real big,” if the court overturns the so-called coordination limits at issue, predicted Bopp, who has dozens of cases pending in courts around the country.

One seeks to advance the Citizens United ruling by challenging an Iowa law banning direct corporate contributions to state candidates, while a pair of others dispute whether non-profit groups called the Committee for Truth in Politics and The Real Truth About Obama that aired ads critical of then-candidate Barack Obama had to disclose their donors or activity.
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Japanese American Groups Supporting American Muslims in Fight Against Discrimination

The Washington Post today reports on the work some Japanese American groups are doing to support American Muslims, who are increasingly the objects of widespread fear and suspicion because of their faith. These groups see echoes of the persecution Japanese Americans faced during World War II in the scapegoating and vilification of American Muslims, exemplified by the congressional hearings Rep. Peter King is beginning this week:

Spurred by memories of the World War II-era roundup and internment of 110,000 of their own people, Japanese Americans - especially those on the West Coast - have been among the most vocal and passionate supporters of embattled Muslims. They've rallied public support against hate crimes at mosques, signed on to legal briefs opposing the government's indefinite detention of Muslims, organized cross-cultural trips to the Manzanar internment camp memorial near the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, and held "Bridging Communities" workshops in Islamic schools and on college campuses.

Last week, Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.), who as a child spent several wartime years living behind barbed wire at Camp Amache in southeastern Colorado, denounced King's hearings as "something similarly sinister."

"Rep. King's intent seems clear: To cast suspicion upon all Muslim Americans and to stoke the fires of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia," Honda wrote in an op-ed published by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Last November, in the heat of the debate over the Park51 Islamic community center in lower Manhattan (aka the “Ground Zero Mosque”), former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens spoke [pdf] about the parallel between the prejudice Japanese Americans faced during World War II the demonization that American Muslims are facing today. Stevens, a WWII veteran, recalled a visit to Pearl Harbor in 1994, when he spotted a group of Japanese tourists and had to fight his first reaction, which was that “those people really don’t belong here”:

But then, after a period of reflection, some of those New Yorkers may have had second thoughts, just as I did at the Arizona. The Japanese tourists were not responsible for what some of their countrymen did decades ago; the Muslims planning to build the mosque are not responsible for what an entirely different group of Muslims did on 9/11. Indeed, terrorists like those who killed over 3, 000 Americans -including Catholics , Jews , Protestants, atheists and some of the 600 ,000 Muslims who live in New York -have also killed many more Muslims who disagree with their radical views in other parts of the world. Many of the Muslims who pray in New York mosques may well have come to America to escape the intolerance of radicals like those who dominate the Taliban. Descendants of pilgrims who came to America in the 17th century to escape religious persecutions -as well as those who thereafter joined the American political experiment that those people of faith helped launch -should understand why American Muslims should enjoy the freedom to build their places of worship wherever permitted by local zoning laws.

Our Constitution protects everyone of us from being found guilty of wrongdoing based on the conduct of our associates. Guilt by association is unfair. The monument teaches us that it is also profoundly unwise to draw inferences based on a person's membership in any association or group without first learning something about the group. Its message is a powerful reminder of the fact that ignorance -that is to say, fear of the unknown -is the source of most invidious prejudice.


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Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS Blasts Unions in Misleading Ad

A shadowy political organization founded by Karl Rove is spending $750,000 to run a nationwide ad blasting workers and their collective bargaining rights. Crossroads GPS is a pro-corporate group with a history of using misleading if not outright false claims to attack Democrats and progressive causes. The organization does not disclose its donors but NBC News found that “a substantial portion of Crossroads GPS’ money came from a small circle of extremely wealthy Wall Street hedge fund and private equity moguls.”

Now, the group is out with an ad trashing organized labor on cable news in light of attempts to cut the collective bargaining rights of public employees in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Idaho. Crossroads GPS asserts that public employees are overpaid, however, a study from the Economic Policy Institute shows that public workers in Wisconsin and Ohio actually “earn lower wages than comparable private sector employees.”

Crossroads GPS isn’t the only shadowy pro-corporate group to support the GOP’s war on organized labor.

Americans for Prosperity, an organization closely tied to the Koch Brothers, is vigorously supporting Republican union-busting and unfairly blames public workers for the country’s budget problems. Like Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity doesn’t disclose its donors and advocates for the agenda of corporate special interests.

As People For president Michael Keegan writes, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United has empowered groups like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity to secretly use corporate money to fund pro-corporate causes:

What is perhaps most troubling about the post-Citizens United flood of corporate money in politics is the free rein it has given for corporations to hide behind front groups to run misleading ads without ever being held accountable for their content. Americans for Prosperity is now employing the same tactics it used to smear health care reform in key House districts in its ad campaign against Wisconsin unions. Like in its ads falsely claiming that health care reform hurt Medicare recipients, the group's ads in Wisconsin pretend to champion populist values while pushing a decidedly anti-populist agenda. The ads seek not only to misinform voters, but to blame ordinary Americans for problems they did not cause.
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The Corporate Discount: Who the Republican Spending Cuts Really Benefit

In the Huffington Post today, People For the American Way's President Michael Keegan connects the extreme pro-corporate policies being pushed by federal and state GOP officials with the new liberty that corporations have to buy influence in elections:

One year after Citizens United v. FEC, when the Supreme Court opened American elections to a corporate spending free-for-all, elected officials in Washington and in statehouses around the country are pushing a stunning set of financial policies that, if passed, will provide a windfall for giant corporations at the expense of already-hurting individual taxpayers. Largely proposed under the guise of financial responsibility, these proposals threaten job creation and essential government services while ensuring the coffers of corporations remain untouched.

American taxpayers are beginning to fight back against some of the most egregious proposals, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to bust public employee unions and the House GOP's slashing of funding for women's health care. But as long as corporations can buy unlimited political influence, these battles will only escalate and they will continue to be just as lopsided.

In the coming weeks, we will see the interests of corporate funders and the interests of individual taxpayers go head-to-head as Congress and the president attempt to hammer out a continuing spending resolution that will keep the government running for the rest of the year. The Republican House wants to block funds to reproductive health services, gut the Affordable Care Act, and even prevent the Environmental Protection Bureau from regulating pollution -- all while costing an estimated 700,000 American jobs. The winners in the House's proposal? Large corporations and the wealthy, who under the proposal astoundingly would not even be asked to give up a single tax loophole.

Read the whole thing here.

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Supreme Court Decision Exposes Religious Right Deceit on Hate Crimes Laws

When Congress debated and ultimately passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, detractors unfairly criticized the law as a threat to free speech and religious freedom. Opponents, especially from the Religious Right, tried to cover up their animus by maintaining that efforts to protect people against violent crime were really attempts to ban “hate speech,” and consequently “criminalize religion."

Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, writes about how the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Snyder v. Phelps yet again exposes the dishonesty of the Religious Right’s arguments:

There has been no end of discussion about this church and its antics. Today I want to focus on an overlooked aspect of the controversy: For years, we’ve been hearing Religious Right leaders claim that their freedom to speak out on issues like homosexuality and abortion is at risk. To hear them tell it, “hate speech” laws are just around the corner, and Pastor Bob is only one step away from being tossed in the hoosegow if he dares to read from the Book of Leviticus in the pulpit.

It’s hard to imagine speech more hateful than that put forth by Westboro Baptist’s members. They think God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality, so they hoist signs reading, “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for IEDs” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.”

This is some seriously hateful stuff – and by an 8-1 vote the Supreme Court said in Snyder v. Phelps that it is protected speech. If Westboro Baptist can claim the mantle of the First Amendment to unleash this stuff, I don’t think Pastor Bob has to worry about his pulpit criticisms of same-sex marriage. W

henever cases like this come up, the term “hate speech” is thrown around a lot in the media. Although this term appears in common parlance, it’s not something the courts have adopted. Sure, a lot of speech can be termed “hateful” – and it’s also protected speech. The First Amendment does not require that speech be polite, rational or popular. After all, the First Amendment wouldn’t be very useful if all it did was protect your right to say something everyone agrees with.



The claim that “hate speech” laws are going to shut down fundamentalist churches and gag conservative pastors is, to put it politely, bunk. It was never a persuasive argument, and in light of Wednesday’s ruling stands in shreds. I’m hoping Religious Right leaders will have the decency to stop saying it – but I won’t hold my breath.
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Supreme Court Recusal Bill Introduced

For several weeks now, more and more people have been paying attention to the general absence of enforceable standards for the recusal of Supreme Court Justices from cases in which their impartiality is in question. Rep. Chris Murphy (CT) has introduced a bill, cosponsored by Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY), that would introduce significant reforms to the manner in which Supreme Court Justices recuse themselves – or don't – from cases in which their impartiality may reasonably be questioned.

Currently, Justices decide for themselves whether they will recuse themselves. They do not need to state the reasons for their decision to recuse or not to recuse, and their decisions are non-reviewable. This can be a problem. As Talking Points Memo reports:

Justices Thomas and Scalia have been under frequent fire in liberal circles over their attendance at conferences sponsored by Koch Industries in recent years, a company whose owners have been major financial backers of conservative political causes. Thomas' wife, Ginni Thomas, runs a conservative nonprofit group, Liberty Central, and some have suggested her activism against President Obama's health care legislation could be a conflict of interest for her husband if the new health care reform law -- as expected -- reaches the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas raised eyebrows this weekend when he said in a speech at a banquet that his wife was working "in defense of liberty" and that they "love the same things, we believe in the same things."

Rep. Murphy discussed this at an event yesterday to generate support for his reform bill.

"The problem is the only person who can decide whether Justice Thomas can recuse himself is Justice Thomas," Murphy told reporters at a press conference outside the Capitol. "That's wrong and that needs to change."

Fortunately, by the time the Supreme Court hears the healthcare case, Americans might not have to rely only on Justice Thomas' goodwill. As described on Rep. Murphy's website, his bill would:

  • apply the Judicial Conference's Code of Conduct, which applies to all other federal judges, to Supreme Court justices. This would allow the public to access more timely and detailed information when an outside group wants to have a justice participate in a conference, such as the funders of the conference;
  • require the justices to simply publicly disclose their reasoning behind a recusal when they withdraw from a case;
  • require the Court to develop a process for parties to a case before the Court to request a decision from the Court, or a panel of the Court, regarding the potential conflict of interest of a particular Justice.

Until the bill passes, we will continue to strongly urge Justice Thomas to recuse himself from future healthcare reform cases, as requested by Rep. Weiner and 73 of his colleagues.

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Still More Bipartisan Support for Goodwin Liu

Richard Painter, once the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, has a comprehensive, well-researched piece in the Huffington Post whose title says it all: "Qualified, Measured, and Mainstream: Why the Senate Should Confirm Goodwin Liu." Now a professor at the University of Minnesota, this conservative lawyer is one of the many legal scholars from across the political spectrum to support Liu's nomination.

Despite this broad support, perhaps no jurist nominated to the federal bench by President Obama has been maligned, mischaracterized, and mistreated by far right extremists more than Goodwin Liu. Point by point, Painter demolishes the myths about Liu. As Painter explains in detail, the caricature the far right has created bears no relation to reality. As he writes:

Liu's opponents have sought to demonize him as a "radical," "extremist," and worse. National Review Online's Ed Whelan has led the charge with a "one-stop repository" of attacks on Liu. However, for anyone who has actually read Liu's writings or watched his testimony, it's clear that the attacks--filled with polemic, caricature, and hyperbole--reveal very little about this exceptionally qualified, measured, and mainstream nominee. ...

This post brings together a variety of material about Liu:

  • First, I review Liu's background, qualifications, and key endorsements.
  • Second, I highlight two letters from respected authorities that shed important light on Liu's scholarly record.
  • Third, I provide several responses to various attacks on Liu.
  • Fourth, I address Liu's opposition to the Supreme Court confirmations of Roberts and Alito, two Justices whom I vigorously supported as a Bush administration lawyer and whom I believe were outstanding additions to the Court.

These materials summarize why Liu is an excellent choice for the federal bench. But even if you read this entire post, nothing substitutes for reading Liu's writings or watching his testimony for yourself. That is how I reached the conclusion that Liu deserves an up-or-down vote in the Senate and ought to be confirmed.

Liu's nomination has been stalled by Republican senators for more than a year. Today, he appears yet again before the Senate Judiciary Committee. When the committee once again approves his nomination and sends it to the Senate floor, leadership should schedule a vote, defy any GOP threats to filibuster, and get this most talented of judicial nominees confirmed at last.

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Chamber Fails to Poke a Hole in Nation's Anti-Discrimination Laws

The Supreme Court issued its decision in Staub v. Proctor Hospital today, addressing whether an employer may be held liable for employment discrimination based on the discriminatory animus of an employee who influenced, but who did not make, the ultimate employment decision.

Although the case involved the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), that statute's similarity to Title VII means the outcome of this case could affect people's ability to fight against a variety of different types of employment discrimination. Both statutes state that unlawful discrimination has occurred if bias was a "motivating factor" behind an employment decision, even if other, legitimate reasons existed.

The Supreme Court ruled today for the fired employee. Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor.

The Court held that if a worker's supervisor is motivated by bias and intentionally takes steps to cause the worker to be penalized in some way, which then results in the worker being penalized, then the employer is liable, even if someone else who is free of bias actually carries out the penalty.

The hospital was supported by Big Business interests in an amicus brief filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They had argued that as long as the person who made the actual firing decision was not biased and had made an independent investigation of the facts, then the company could not be held liable for the discriminatory actions leading up to that point. This interpretation, if accepted, could potentially have opened a loophole in anti-discrimination statutes, one where corporations could maneuver their internal processes to shield themselves from liability for unlawful employment decisions.

However, as SCOTUSBlog reports:

[T]he Court majority rejected the hospital's argument that, since the supervisor who made the final decision actually did her own investigation before acting, that should neutralize the effect of the other supervisors' bias and get the hospital off the hook. If the biased supervisors' intent fit into the scenario laid out by the Scalia opinion, the Court said, an investigation by the final decision-maker would not remove liability.

This defeat for the Chamber of Commerce is a victory for workers across the country.

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